Open Letter to Atlanta: How to Become the Next Silicon Valley
The Valley Rapid Transit (VRT) light rail train snaked along Tasman Street heading toward Mountain View from San Jose. As it did I marveled at the heart of Silicon Valley. Corporate headquarters of Cisco on the left, Yahoo and Juniper on the right. The campuses extended in all directions. As we rode along we passed by Java Drive and, of course, Innovation Way. Having cut my teeth during the rise of the internet, there was a fairy tale magic of riding this train on a warm and sunny day. It was almost like a Disney World ride for the telecom lifer.
But after my meeting on the ride back to San Jose, I tried to look a little deeper. I ignored the buildings, but paid close attention to the people who boarded and exited the train. I was trying to crack a code that my native Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been working on in conjunction with Georgia Tech and others:
How do we create the next Silicon Valley in Georgia?
One of the deepest tenets held by Silicon Valley is that the reason so many companies are based there is the extremely deep talent pool of computer science engineers. Valley experts cite the California research universities for this abundance. But people have legs! In a Silicon Valley office you are as likely to find a Northwestern or Georgia Tech grad (as I did) as a Stanford graduate. The more I thought about it, the more I decided that having a huge number of talented engineers around is really more a matter of the chicken versus the egg.
Let me explain. Looking around the train I was riding, I imagined a well-paid engineer leaving an established company on one side of the street to try her fortune at a start-up on the other side. She would either cash in with the new company or go bust. If the venture didn’t work out, she simply went back across the street to her former employer. Either way, her commute would not change, she wouldn’t have to move and she was almost guaranteed employment in the event the start-up failed.
Here in Atlanta there is no such luxury. Scoring a few hundred tech jobs from a single employer is a huge deal. Losing an innovation center to Silicon Valley is a black eye. However, because there is no critical mass of tech companies in Atlanta like there is in Silicon Valley, two things happen. First, Atlanta workers have far fewer opportunities to apply what they have learned at one tech company to take to another and innovate. In Atlanta, high tech businesses aren’t close to one another and therefore changing jobs from one research center to another can mean adding hours onto a commute. So instead of one innovation center feeding the rise of other new businesses, the jobs become stagnant and there is no place for talent to go except away. Cross-pollinizing of ideas is just not possible where there is only one flower per ten miles.
Secondly, an upwardly mobile engineer who is looking for new challenges is often forced to leave Atlanta to find a new position. When talent like this leaves, so does a base from which to mentor new tech workers and new ideas. If a techie cuts his teeth in Atlanta only to move to Silicon Valley to try out a new idea, the loss to Atlanta is only amplified. The critical mass of Silicon Valley tech firms may seem absurd (it sure did to me riding that light rail train), but it creates its own gravity that multiplies its fortune. As for talent, the workers did not seem any smarter out there to me. There are just more of them with the opportunity to gain many different experiences from a preponderance of employment options.
Note to the Mayor Reed and others: Atlanta would be wise to consolidate new high-tech businesses geographically in the city or in a suburb and then invest in infrastructure around them. Giving this center easy access to and from Georgia Tech would also be a plus.
The other thing I noticed was that the parking lots were full. “Hasn’t working from home caught on out here?”, I wondered. I thought back to Marisa Mayer’s edict to bring Yahoo employees back to the offices from a year or so ago. I started to better understand her reasoning as I rounded the bend past the enormous Yahoo campus. I noticed that people on the train were definitely planning to spend the day in their corporate offices, not cyber-slacking from home. Learning and understanding happens on many different levels and happens differently for different people. In a face-to-face meeting auditory, visual and tactile senses reinforce messages in a way that audio or even video conferencing do not. Chance encounters in the office, on the campus or even in the train enable the Silicon Valley community to share knowledge and apply adaptations of that knowledge faster. In this way, the proximity itself of these tech giants builds the community. The next learning for Atlanta is, perhaps we need to discourage telecommuting and face up to our road and public transit challenges. No place has more people and less roads than the Bay Area, yet collaboration and technology seem to thrive there on a massive scale each day.
I don’t expect Atlanta to become the next tech hub overnight. And I doubt we can unseat Silicon Valley as the technology capital of the country. But in order to even remain viable in this economy, our focus, along with every other city in America, needs to turn more to a technology driven engine. By seeing what works in California, we can learn some valuable lessons.